Oscar Freire (Rabobank) isn’t an obvious candidate for cycling stardom, is he? Tom Boonen (Quick Step) is better on the stones. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) is quicker. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) has more horsepower. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) is a better climber. Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) is, well, we don’t know what he is yet, but we’re pretty sure it’s good.
By comparison, Friere’s talents are a bit less obvious, perhaps even more mental than physical, and he doesn’t get as many chances to show off his specialty as the aforementioned riders do. That’s because there just aren’t too many races that cater to what seems to be Freire’s defining talent: being the best small bunch sprinter in the world in cycling’s death zone – distances beyond 250 kilometers. In fact, there are really only two races with that sort of distance that are likely to end in a bunch sprint: the occasional World Championship, and Milan-San Remo. But as of last Saturday Freire has won both of them three times, and I hear they pay pretty well.
In trying to explain those victories, it would be convenient to pin Freire’s long-haul prowess on age – to profess that his 34 years have given him the fabled “resistance” that comes from years as a professional and the tens of thousands of kilometers in the legs, the magical force that gives older riders the edge when the kilometer count gets beyond the norm. I’d like that to be true – it’s a theory that I’m fond of, more and more so as I get older, in fact. The truth is, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case for Freire. He bagged his first world championship (1999) in Verona at age 23, when he was a little-known rider on the modest Vitalicio Seguros team. His second title came in 2001 when he was 25, and the third in 2004 at 28. So Freire wasn’t boy-wonder young when he won those, but he certainly wasn’t shuffling off towards the rocking chair, either. His San Remo victories (which tack another 40k or so onto the typical World Championship distance of around 260k) fit the older rider theory a bit better, having been achieved at ages 28 (2004), 31 (2007), and 34 (2010). But after his earlier Worlds successes, those San Remo triumphs were hardly surprising. We already knew he could go the distance and still have a kick at the line.
Pure distance isn’t the only thing Freire seems to thrive on, though; there seems to be a level-of-difficulty aspect that factors into his wins as well. After all, if Freire’s turn-on was just rolling out the kilometers and having a sprint at the end, he would have stacks of Paris-Tours victories in his palmares. But he doesn’t, and my thinking is that’s because, while Paris-Tours is a hair over 250k, it’s also pancake flat, with a straight-as-an-arrow run in. There’s just not enough material there for Freire to work with, no obstacles to wear out the more conventional sprinters and their assistants or to sap the strength of the late-race breakaway heroes who have captured quite a few victories there recently.
While I certainly wouldn’t rule out Freire winning Paris-Tours based on that, his sweet spot does seem to lie somewhere between selectivity of a Ronde van Vlaanderen and the sprinter-friendliness of a Paris-Tours. For Freire to thrive, the race needs enough difficulty to shed the pure sprinters, but not enough to decimate the field entirely. (In short, a flatish World Championship course, or the capi of the Ligurian coast.) If that comfort zone seems familiar, it’s because it used to be the stomping ground of Eric Zabel, who’s probably at least part of the reason Freire doesn’t have more victories in races that fit the bill. (Although Zabel is at least partially responsible for Freire’s 2004 Milan-San Remo victory.)
Looking back over his victories, I can’t help but think that Freire’s advantage in long races is more between his ears than in his legs. He has a certain calmness about him, even when he’s flicking his bike over medians and through roundabouts to pick up a couple bike lengths in a hectic finale. Since he burst on the scene with his 1999 World Championship win in Verona, I can’t recall an instance of Freire getting in a media pissing match with another rider or with his team management. I’ve never heard him complain about a dangerous finish, or seen him upset after a narrow loss. While it’s become a verbal reflex for Spanish riders to tell journalists they’re feeling tranquilo ahead of a major goal or after some major disappointment, coming from Freire, I’d actually believe it. Though he undoubtedly has the same worries and fears we all have, in racing and in life, he doesn't seem to let any of it get to him. If you up all the worrying a typical rider could during the buildup to a big event and over almost 300 kilometers of racing, then by comparison Freire has to be saving some serious mental energy for the sprint. And that comes in handy when you’re looking for the right wheel, dodging toasted leadout men, and trying to spot the jump when it comes.
While the exact conditions that most favor his success are somewhat rare, Freire (again like Zabel), also possesses surprising versatility. Like most riders with a strong sprint as their most notable quality, he has a host of stage wins, including four in the Tour de France, seven in the Vuelta a Espana, and wins at a number of smaller venues. To those, he adds the Tour de France green jersey in 2008, and an overall win in Tirreno-Adriatico in 2005 – both feats seldom accomplished by pure sprinters.
More interesting, however, is Freire’s more recent affinity for the cobbles of northern Europe. It first showed with his win at the Brabantse Pijl Belgian classic, which he first won in 2005 before nabbing the 2006 and 2007 titles as well. For those who might have missed those gritty wins, his victory at the 2008 Gent-Wevelgem may have come as a surprise, if only because he’s Spanish and Gent has cobblestones. But looking closer, Gent is a perfect target for the Cantabrian. Though only a paltry 219 kilometers long, the relatively sprinter-friendly cobbled classic features two ascents of the Rodeberg-Monteberg-Kemmelberg triple before descending and flattening out for the remaining 28 kilometers to the finish on Wevelgem’s Vanackerestraat. In the absence of a quality escape like 2009's, that leaves the perfect recipe for a hard-man’s bunch sprint, and a potential Freire victory.
Gent-Wevelgem, of course, is coming up this Sunday in its new weekend time slot, and Freire is clearly on form. But, when the inevitable list of favorites come out, he’s likely to slot in around fifth or sixth on a top-10 list again. I’m guessing he won’t be bothered by that.
- What do we think of Gent-Wevelgem’s move to the weekend? For the race itself, for riders, and for anyone living within striking distance of it, it’s a great move. Obviously, the race’s chances of getting a good crowd and live TV audience are better on a Sunday than they are on a Wednesday, even in Belgium, where people are willing to bag work for a bike race. Organizers are also likely hoping that absenteeism among the top cobbled riders will drop, since they’ll no longer be primarily concerned with recovering from Flanders and preparing for Roubaix, and bailing on Gent as a result. And, as big a win as everyone knows Gent is, being a mid-week classic still hurts your prestige a bit.
Who might lose out from the move? Well, American and tourists from far-away lands, for one – you used to be able to take a nine day block and fit in Flanders, Gent, and Roubaix for your dime, but now you’ll have to mill around Flanders for an extra week to fit all three in. Granted, for bike racers, there are worse places to be stuck than Flanders in early April. I’m on the fence about whether the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a.k.a., the GP E3) the day before Gent wins or loses in this deal. Big riders might either double up on the weekend and get a last block of high-intensity training in before Flanders the following Sunday, or they might skip or sandbag the E3 in hopes of doing real damage in Gent. Probably a little bit of both, actually, but I’m guessing in the end it’s a net win for the E3.
- After dental problems set back his early season preparations, Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) seems to be bouncing back, taking the stage win at the Volta a Catalunya today. Catalunya doesn’t exactly draw the cream of the sprinter crop, but with Cavendish feeling at least a bit better, Gent-Wevelgem just got that much more interesting.
- Yet again, the outfit currently known at Omega Pharma-Lotto is under the gun for failing to register a win with the thick of classics season upon us. I’ve always liked Lotto, at least partly because they’re always the lower-budget underdog at the top of Belgian cycling, if that makes sense. I was hoping that without Cadel Evans’ grand tour aspirations to look after this year, they’d be able to focus in on their core competencies and be fit, happy, and ready for April, but no avail. It’s worth noting that Evans’ current team, BMC, is also winless so far with a classics squad that’s been radically underperforming, particularly for a team that should be trying to make its name.
- Like a good Belgian classic? Don’t forget Dwars door Vlaanderen (“Race Across Flanders”) on Thursday. It has cobbles, bergs – you know, all that stuff you like. Looking back over the season so far, it’s hard to bet against riders like Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) or Bobby Traksel (Vacansoleil) for races like Dwars and E3, but this isn’t early March anymore, and with the giants of the road tuning up their form, their odds may be getting a bit slimmer.
- On the track, Belgium’s Iljo Keisse broke his collarbone during a training session at the World Championships. That’s unfortunate for Belgium’s hopes in the madison and points race, but it's also now a loss for road racing fans. After dominating the Six Day races for several years, Keisse signed a contract with Quick Step for this year, where many were looking forward to seeing how he’d translate his ample skills on the boards to the road. Belgium’s last big Six Day star, Etienne de Wilde, amassed a pretty impressive road resume, including Het Volk and Tour de France stage wins. Looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer to see if Keisse can make a go of it year-round.
- One final Freire note – I had to include a link to this Bobke Strut post, which also gives a bit of insight into Freire’s relaxed personality. It features Freire with a mini pump duct-taped to the top tube of his Rabobank issued Colnago. That earned him the Strut’s “low budget superstar” title, and he did it the honest way, by not sweating the details (not by the Rivendell/Martha Stewart way, where you spend 12 hours on internet research and another 4 hours in the garage to make things look like they’ve “just been thrown together”).